Racial Assimilation of Latinos through Race Policy

by Raúl Quiñones Rosado, Ph.D.
Latinos and Race Policy in the US (Part Three)

Black, Brown or Light 2The racial assimilation of People of Color has always been a concern in efforts to end racial oppression, to mitigate its negative impacts, and to create racial equity in US society. In contrast to integration, a group’s process of gaining admission into and occupying a legitimate place within society while maintaining their own group identity, assimilation is the process by which People of Color psychologically internalize patterns of thought and behavior of white culture while largely replacing their own cultural and racial identity. In a racist society such as ours, assimilation, whether that of individuals or of entire groups, requires that the distinct identity of those previously racialized as non-white is absorbed into whiteness. At the individual level, a Person of Color who assimilates passes for white. At the collective level, a People of Color who assimilate lose their distinct identity: their unique existence as a group dissolves into the white collective.

The assimilation of Latino/a individuals, and potentially our various collectivities, is another negative outcome of living within a culture of racial oppression and yet another challenge for antiracism and racial equity efforts. As a manifestation of internalized racial oppression, assimilation functions as a disruption within the process of racial identity development. This disruption can occur to a person born and raised within a Latino-identified family or, as is increasingly the case, to a child of mixed Latino and white parents. Assimilation is a psychosocial phenomenon that occurs mostly beyond the conscious awareness of the individual, someone who is, to some degree, distanced from their cultural heritage, unaware of their people’s history, disconnected from family roots, or disassociated from community.

At this individual level, assimilation may be mitigated or prevented through any number of liberating and transformative psycho-educational strategies—a topic beyond the scope of this writing. Yet, beyond efforts to mitigate or avoid the negative impact of assimilation on Latinos individually, it is fundamentally important and urgently necessary that we examine the impact, if not question the purpose, of race policy on a larger scale and its role in assimilating many Latinos into the white collective, rather than integrating all Latinos into US society.

As antiracism organizers and racial equity advocates work in Latino communities and build multiracial alliances to transform institutional practices and change race policy, there are multiple layers of cultural complexity to consider. Many involve how dynamics of internalized racial oppression of Latinos in the US may interact with historical patterns of structural racism in Latin American contexts—cultural, sociological and psychological backdrops of Latino identity. For example, the cultural legacy of Spain’s racist caste system[1] throughout Latin America, which like the historical racial paradigm of the US, also privileges people deemed to be white, is an issue that needs to be acknowledged and examined among Latinos. Addressing light-skin privilege, colorism, eurocentrism and their intersections with classism, sexism and nationalism within our Latin American cultures of origin and, then, how these in turn may relate to Latino assimilation and collusion with white supremacy in the US, remains a primary task of antiracism. Meanwhile, we must also examine the extent to which race policy supports or undermines efforts toward racial equity and the potential for true integration without racial assimilation into whiteness of all Peoples of Color.

Undoubtedly, an ambivalent national race policy that insists on dividing Latinos among multiple races and, then, re-racializing more than half of this segment of the population as white would surely appear to foster the process of Latino assimilation. On the one hand, current race policy ensures that Latinos are counted as a specific demographic separate from whites, African Americans and other racial groups, for the purpose of monitoring shifts in economic, political, cultural and social patterns of this group relative to other groups and toward establishing other relevant public policy. Implemented through institutions’ use of “Hispanic” and “Non-Hispanic” labels, this policy simultaneously tracks persons by the official “races”: White, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Census reports, for example, typically show complex population tables with three data sets: (1) total population; (2) Non-Hispanic population, and; (3) Hispanic population. An additional layer of complexity, and difficulty in using the information, is that numbers for people of “two or more races” also appear in each set. Yet, on the other hand, when presenting total population by race in simplified form, the Census Bureau aggregates much of the “Hispanic” population to the “white” totals. Such application of current race policy, intentionally or unintentionally, would maintain a numerically white majority well beyond 2042 when the demographic shift has been projected to occur. Besides ensuring that whites remain the racial majority and retain the “majority rules” rationale for their continued cultural dominance, privileged social status, and political-economic control,[2] the ambivalent nature of current race policy would certainly serve to perpetuate structural racism and its corollary racial inequities.

“Hispanics” as a Policy of Racial Assimilation

The term “Hispanic” was adopted in the 1980s, a time when Latinos were identified as the fastest growing segment of the population and were, within a mere two decades, projected to numerically surpass the African American population. The adoption of this term also followed on the heels of the US Census Bureau moving away from a door-to-door census-taking process to using, starting with the 1960 Census, the national postal service to collect the raw data. A term more politically convenient, if not also seemingly more culturally fitting, than those previously used (such as Spanish, Spanish-language, and Spanish-surnamed) was deemed necessary as household occupants themselves, and no longer Census enumerators, would be the ones to identify and report the race(s) of household members and return completed forms by mail.

G. Cristina Mora, in Making Hispanics, convincingly argues that government bureaucrats adopted the term “Hispanic” with the active involvement of Latino activists and corporate media. Each of these three sectors, Mora posits, needed a simple label that could potentially reconcile the many different national identities combined under it, distinct groups often at odds with one another. Each of them needed a term that could serve their particular interests: race policy in the case of government bureaucrats; regional and national politics for Latino activists; and demographically targeted marketing for the media and their corporate clients.

To be clear, the adoption of a term that sought to create a unifying identity for peoples of Latin American origin in the US, groups often at odds with each other, was indeed a political achievement. In large measure, it reflected a major shift of critical consciousness spurred by decades—from the mid-1950s into the early 1980s—of African American civil rights and Black Power movements, then expanding into the liberation struggles of women, of American Indians, and of Latinos: the United Farm Workers, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and the Puerto Rican pro-independence movements, among others.

While “Hispanic” ostensibly served to unify Latinos, or at least, generate a greater sense of shared identity across Latino groups, it also advertently or inadvertently had other results in the general public psyche. To many other US Americans, the term gave people an acceptable way to collectivize Latinos, as well as a way to avoid calling us “Mexican” or “Puerto Rican,” identifiers that, in the context of post-civil rights racial narratives and emerging multicultural sensitivities of the 1980s and ‘90s, could have been considered “politically incorrect.” To many of us, while still proudly Mexican, Puerto Rican, or, increasingly, Cuban, Dominican, Salvadoran and other Latin American heritages, widespread adoption of the term “Hispanic” in popular and official discourse meant we were finally acknowledged as part of the fabric of US American society.

Yet, in the thirty-plus years since its ubiquitous adoption by public, private and non-profit sectors alike, the term “Hispanic” has also, in effect, reoriented the shared language of race throughout the general public. “Hispanic” seems to have redefined ways in which Latino identity has historically been collectively perceived and conceived, both by Latinos and by other groups. Though still resisted or outright rejected by many Latinos, widespread acceptance of the “Hispanic” label has, for all intents and purposes, functioned as a sociolinguistic reframe that has shifted US Americans’ collective subjective referents of this social identity group away from our actual origin—Latin America—stereotypically characterized as economically poor, politically unstable, ethically questionable, culturally backward, racially hybrid, and thus, decidedly, non-white. Instead, “Hispanic” has redirected our collective thinking toward Spain: European, cultured and, ostensibly, white. In effect, the pervasive use of the term “Hispanic” has not only reoriented the racial narrative of US society; it has misled it, placing it at the service of white supremacy.

It is important to consider the role of the US government in advancing the misleading reframing of Latino identity.[3] For the Census 2000, the US Department of Commerce, through its Census Bureau, would remind us that, according to official race policy as established by the US Office of Management and Budget (1997), “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish” was not to be considered a race, but rather, an ethnicity.[4] In order to reduce the high percentage of Latinos that typically would choose “Some Other Race” in the absence of a Latino category, Census responders would first indicate if they were “Hispanic/Latino/Spanish,” and if they answered “Yes”, they would then specify their national origin: Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. Clearly stating that “people who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race,” the next questionnaire item directed members of this ethnic group to identify their race based on one of five categories: White; Black/African American/Negro; American Indian/Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

To be sure, in both the 2000 and 2010 Census processes, Latinos were, indeed, counted as a separate group, albeit not a racial one. Then, like today, the Federal government and its agencies needed data sets specific to this growing demographic sector, information that, in turn, can be used by policymakers and implementers in health, education, public welfare, housing, transportation, industry, retail, banking and finance, and every social, cultural, political and economic institution and system. This information is gathered presumably in order to track health, income, wealth and other indicators of well-being in our communities. And this data continues to be collected, in large measure, because of the activism of Latino advocacy groups and, more recently, the lobbying of Hispanic for-profit interest groups.

Yet, this counting and tracking of Hispanic/Latinos—still necessary because of the legacy and persistence of structural racism—is done in a way that invisibilizes the reality that Latinos have always been and still are a racialized ethnicity, a group perceived and conceived in the collective US consciousness as non-white, as People of Color. This data collection is done in a way that, in effect, steers many Latinos into being counted as white. By separating race from ethnicity as distinct categories, and asking Latinos to identify both their Latino ethnicity and their race, the percentage of Hispanic/Latinos who were counted as white by the Census increased from just under 48% in 2000 to 53% in 2010.[5]


[1]  Early in its colonization of The Americas, Spain created a system of castas that classified people, not only as Spanish, indio (indigenous) and negro (African), but also according to their “racial” mix: Spanish and indio, mestizo; Spanish and negro were mulato; negro and indio, sambo, etc. “Racial nomenclature was variable and dozens of labels existed,” according to Wade (2010:27).

[2] Clearly, the South African apartheid experience serves as a reminder that a numeric majority is not required for white cultural dominance, privileged socio-economic status and state control.

[3] In Making Hispanics (2014), Mora narrates how media and Latino advocacy organizations also played a key role in advancing this reframing process.

[4] I would argue that Hispanic/Latino/Spanish is a racialized pan-ethnic category, a sociopolitical construct, in effect, no different than white (racialized pan-ethnics of European origin), Black (racialized pan-ethnics of African origin), Native American (racialized pan-ethnics indigenous peoples), Asian, and other identity groups commonly referred to as races in US society.

[5] Please bear in mind that what I am saying is that many Latinos are being added to the “white population count,” not that Latinos count, matter or have value in the same way that whites do in order to actually be considered white in US society.


Adapted from Latinos and Multiracial AmericaRace Policy and Multiracial Americans. K. Odell Korgen (Ed.). The Policy Press, University of Bristol, UK. 2016.